What Leverage in Central Asia?

Article excerpt

NEWS reports from the six mostly Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union often have concentrated on the competition for influence over them by Middle Eastern states. Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan constantly dispatch diplomats to Central Asia and Azerbaijan. They sign cultural, trade, or security protocols almost daily. They beam radio and television broadcasts. They provide loans, and they train students.

But activity alone does not guarantee influence. Middle East states exert little real authority in any area of life in the former Soviet Union, from military affairs to religious practice. This generalization holds especially in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, Central Asia's most populous and powerful states; it also applies to Azerbaijan and Tajikistan, where (respectively) Turkey and Iran enjoy greatest strength.

Why so little impact? Because Turkey, Iran, and Pakistan all suffer from severe limitations. Not one of them has the cultural, economic, or military means to carve out a large sphere of influence. Even President Turgut Ozal has acknowledged that Turkish commitments of aid are "beyond our means."

Each state also has its own special shortcomings. Despite Western notions to the contrary (that Turkey has the strongest historical and cultural links), Turkey is not only geographically remote from Central Asia, but it enjoys few historical or cultural ties to that region. Istanbul never ruled Central Asia; conversely, Central Asia ruled Anatolia only briefly under Tamerlane. Ottomans concentrated attention on their vast empire from Hungary to Yemen, not on distant Turkistan. Consequently, they had little cultural impact there until the decades just before World War I. Similarly, Kemal Ataturk's reforms had almost no impact.

As for Iran, its international isolation much reduces that country's attraction for states just emerging from three generations of colonialism and political quarantine. At the same time, its severe, unremitting Islamic order puts off peoples accustomed to secularism.

Pakistan suffers from perpetual instability and wrenching poverty, and so can neither project power nor serve as a convincing model for others to emulate.

The lack of Middle Eastern leverage also reflects the wishes of the ex-Soviet Muslims themselves. They do not seek to fall right back under the tutelage of some distant capital. …